Between 1771 and 1818, East India Company (EIC) infantry, along with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of soldiers around the world, carried the India Pattern musket into battle. Weighing around 10 lbs and firing a .76in caliber lead bullet that left the barrel at roughly 2,425 foot-pounds of energy, it had a maximum effective range of about 200 yards (Harding 1999b: xiv, 380-381). For all this, it wasn’t the perfect flintlock musket. A knowledgeable critic probably wouldn’t call it aesthetically pleasing or of high quality. Nevertheless, like all widely adopted smallarms, it was good enough. And just being good enough turns out to be pretty impressive when one considers the war records of EIC and British armies armed with this weapon.
A lot of questions nagged at me when I began my research on Indian Army arms and equipment. How effective and dependable was the India Pattern musket as a weapon? How much did it cost to make? Why did the EIC choose this weapon over other designs? Why did the British and other armies adopt the India Pattern musket and put it into service? I had no clue. After all, the last weapon with which I had any direct experience was an M16 during the Vietnam War, and all the M16 shares with a musket is that they are both smallarms.
The more I learned about the India Pattern musket, the more impressed I became, not least because it was a product of the EIC, which, in my view, had far more of a reputation for being cheap, cold, and self-serving than being known for its smallarms. Here, David F. Harding’s (1997a, 1997b, 1999a, 1999b) definitive work on EIC smallarms helped to convince me that modern assessments of this musket as an inaccurate, low performance weapon (e.g., Fuller 1955: 283-284; Hughes 1974: 26-27) fail to do it justice. Harding’s monumental four volume study provides a brilliant analysis of EIC smallarms procurement, issue, use, and repair data and policies. Knowledge of a weapon’s physical characteristics gives limited insights, but seeing how it fits into the larger context of EIC policies and practices enables one to understand that there exist many misconceptions about EIC and British Army muskets of this period.
The EIC took a different approach to arm its soldiers than the Board of Ordnance, which supplied arms to the British Army. While the Board of Ordnance emphasized the high quality of its smallarms, the EIC chose to emphasize serviceability (Harding 1997a:262-263) — to make a weapon that was adequate to meet the demands of hard field service, but also cheap to manufacture and repair. The decision to assign top priority to serviceability was spot on; the same qualities can be seen today in the design objectives of both the M16 and the Kalashnikov assault rifles, tens of millions of which now pollute the world.
As for the unit cost of a musket, the EIC purchased more than 676,000 of them from British suppliers in the 1770s and 1780s for the equivalent of about £84 or US $134.* To get a sense of scale, the M4 carbine, the successor to the M16, will cost the US Government $673.10 per rifle in 2012 (Curtis 2012). Comparatively speaking, the India Pattern musket was a bargain.
After purchasing India Pattern muskets for several years from the same British gunmakers who made these arms for the EIC, the Board of Ordnance began to exclusively manufacture this weapon in 1797. It continued to do so for decades, ultimately producing more than 2,800,000 of these muskets (Bailey & Harding 1994:56). As Harding (1999b: xv) remarked, the India Pattern musket “… could be called the Kalashnikov AK-47 of its day. Besides being Britain’s main infantry weapon in the Napoleonic Wars and the expansion of its Indian empire, this musket saw use on every continent: in Canada and the US in the War of 1812, at the Alamo and San Jacinto in Texas, in the South American wars of liberation, in the Carlist Wars in Spain, in the Swedish army, in southern Africa, in south east Asia, in the Opium Wars in China, and in the colonisation of Australasia.” If that’s not “good enough”, then I cannot imagine what would be.
* Conversion rate based on the year 1780 for the 27 shilling cost price of a musket (Harding 1997b:54) and the year 2005 for modern currency. The calculation was made using the National Archives currency converter to pounds sterling. The estimated value in US dollars was calculated by multiplying the 2005 value in pounds sterling by 1.6.
Bailey, D.W. (2002) British Military Flintlock Rifles, 1740-1840. Lincoln, RI: Andrew Mowbray — not cited here, but an important general reference.
Bailey, D.W. & D.F. Harding (1997) “From India to Waterloo: the “India Pattern” Musket”. In The Road to Waterloo: The British Army and the Struggle against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, 1793-1815, edited by A. Guy, pp. 48-57. London: National Army Museum.
Curtis, Rob (2012) “U.S. Army places order for 24,000 M4A1 carbines with Remington | Military Times GearScout”. Militarytimes.com. Accessed 15 Dec 2012.
Fuller, J.F.C. (1987, reprint of 1955 edition) A Military History of the Western World: From the Defeat of the Spanish Armada to the Battle of Waterloo. New York: Da Capo Press.
Harding, D.F. (1997a) Smallarms of the East India Company, 1600-1856: Volume I, Procurement and Design. London: Foresight Books.
Harding, D.F. (1997b) Smallarms of the East India Company, 1600-1856: Volume II, Catalogue of Patterns. London: Foresight Books.
Harding, D.F. (1999a) Smallarms of the East India Company, 1600-1856: Volume III, Ammunition and Performance. London: Foresight Books.
Harding, D.F. (1999b) Smallarms of the East India Company, 1600-1856: Volume IV, The Users and Their Smallarms. London: Foresight Books.
Hughes, B.P. (1974) Firepower: Weapons Effectiveness on the Battlefield, 1630-1850. New York: Charles Scribners.